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W. simply asked for a picture of his daughter playing near her mother’s house. “I used to take a lot of pictures of her myself.”

When Dutch photographer, Desiree Van Hoek visited Leuven Prison in Belgium, her intention was to photograph the pictures on prisoners’ cell walls. To look at prisoners’ use of — and values placed within — photographs would have been an anthropological study of sorts. Alas, as with many a proposed prison photography project, the administration would not allow it. Her plans for a camera workshop were also nixed. Undeterred, Van Hoek conceived of another way to use photography to connect with the prisoners.

“I was visiting a very outdated prison, and noticed that there were only very small windows. There was nothing to see for the prisoners but a wall, some mud and an old goat,” explains Van Hoek. “This seemed very depressing to me, so I asked the prisoners if there was an image they would like me to photograph for them. Something that would make them feel better.”

The resulting series, titled Leuven Centraal, is essentially a pen-pal project, but making use of pictures not words to forge connection. After successfully getting approval for the project at Leuven, Van Hoek repeated the formula at Turnhout and Hoogstraten prisons, also in Belgium.

The methodology of Van Hoek’s project is akin to Mark Strandquist’s Some Other Places We Have Missed and the Tamms Year Ten project Photo Requests From Solitary. Both these projects I’ve applauded in the past (here and here). In the same spirit, I wanted to ask Van Hoek about the outcomes and motives for her project.

Scroll down for Q&A


D. gave me a blue piece of paper ripped out of a magazine. He wanted a picture of a blue sky with soft white clouds. “Sun and a light breeze keep depression away.”


Prison Photography (PP): Describe the types of requests.

Desiree Van Hoek (DVH): It could be anything, as long as it wasn’t related to their crimes. The men came up with all kinds of ideas: family members, cars, dogs, their favorite soccer team, sunsets, etc. I also asked them to write down why they wanted these particular images.

PP: How did you come up with the idea?

DVH: I wanted to do a photography project and a workshop with prisoners. During an earlier project in the streets of Los Angeles, I had met several ex-prisoners who got their life back together thanks to (among other things) painting and photography. This had inspired me, and I had an appointment in the Leuven prison to see what was possible. The office of the person I was visiting was right in the middle of the prison.

PP: What was your initial interest?

DVH: I’ve always been interested in the way people live under different circumstances, and what they do with their homes. My work always has a social component.


K. spent 13 years breeding and training Dobermans. Prison management wouldn’t allow a picture of a big dog, so he chose a puppy. “Dobermans are sweet dogs, although most people think they are not.”

PP: What is the state of criminal justice in Belgium right now?

DVH: From a Dutch perspective, many Belgian prisons are old and outdated. There are often uprisings. Prisoners with psychological problems are mixed with other prisoners. Many prisoners told me they would rather be in a Dutch prison. They had heard good stories about the living conditions and the food (french fries once a week).

PP: How are prisoners perceived in Belgium?

DVH: That is hard for me to say. But I think the Belgians in general don’t perceive them as victims of society, but really as criminals who should be put away. In Holland, this used to be different, but nowadays more and more people seem to have the same view.

PP: Did any of the requests surprise or touch you?

DVH: What I found touching was that they were all very polite. Only one guy asked for a picture of a sexy girl, which was okay with me, but the prison wouldn’t allow it. Also touching: one guy asked for picture of me (this wasn’t allowed either).

What I found surprising and painful was that they didn’t ask for more people. I expected them to ask pictures of their family, but most of them asked for nature, animals or objects. This was because, they said, they had no one.


L. asked for a picture of the latest model BMW, Audi or Mercedes, taken in a showroom. “I’ve always loved beautiful cars.”

PP: What were the reactions of prisoners?

DVH: Very positive. The staff later sent me letters with their reactions. One prisoner who hadn’t participated said he regretted it seeing the results. A father who had asked for a picture of his daughter started to cry in front of all the other men, and everybody was touched by this.

PP: What were the reactions of staff?

DVH: Also very positive. I financed the projects in Leuven and Hoogstraten myself, and then got an offer to do another one in Turnhout for which I got paid. Staff was very cooperative, and one of the directors sent me a thank you letter to say he was grateful.

PP: Would you like to do any more work with prisoners or in prisons?

DVH: I would really like to repeat the project with female prisoners. But I’m back in Holland now, and it’s much harder here to get into prisons.



 S. wanted a picture of Muntplein, the only legal graffiti spot in Antwerp. ‘This is where I would hang out with my friends.”



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